Panel argues US role in South Africa
By Katie Schwarz
A panel of six speakers debated whether US involvement in South Africa is an appropriate means of changing that country's apartheid system before a belligerent crowd of approximately 500 yesterday in Kresge Auditorium.
The event -- titled "What Can and Should Americans Do About Apartheid?" -- was part of the Institute Colloquium on Apartheid, sponsored by the Institute Colloquium Committee.
The panelists included Shirley Chisholm, former member of Congress; William Jacobsen of the US State Department's working group on South Africa; Willard Johnson, MIT professor of political science; Nthato Motlana, chairman of the Soweto
Committee of Ten; John Reed '61, chairman of Citicorp; and Gretchen Ritter G.
Johnny Makatini, US representative of the African National Congress (ANC), was unable to participate as scheduled. Robert I. Rotberg, MIT professor of political science and history, moderated the discussion.
Dispute centered on the question of whether American trade and commercial presence in South Africa only perpetuates the current state of affairs, or whether it can be used to influence the government to moderate apartheid. Many in the audience supported the former view, cheering speakers who advocated divestment.
Chisholm said that American business and government could not accomplish change in South Africa, and Johnson saw any US involvement as abhorrent. He (Please turn to page 6)
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criticized the US policy of "constructive engagement" as "more than an engagement ... a marriage."
Motlana saw the only remedy for apartheid as "a political solution at the highest level." Jacobsen and Reed, on the other hand, emphasized the possibility of using US presence to influence conditions in South Africa. In a question-and-answer period after the discussion, most questioners attacked Jacobsen and Reed's position.
Panelists speak individually
Ritter opened the discussion by saying that Americans pay attention to South Africa because "we can't help but see echoes of our own racist past." Even those who do not hold political or corporate power can take action against racism, she asserted. She cited the decline in minority enrollment and the small number of black faculty at MIT as problems students can address.
US foreign policy has failed to bring change in South Africa, Chisholm charged. The resistance of the South African government and US economic dependence on South Africa's minerals constrain American foreign policy, she said. Thus, opposition to apartheid must "begin as a grass roots movement," she continued.
The Reagan administration has not taken strong enough action against apartheid because "greed supersedes need," Chisholm added, drawing the first applause of the discussion. The audience applauded again when she commended some universities' divestment of holdings in companies doing business in South Africa, urging MIT to do likewise.
Jacobsen outlined the State Department's view. He emphasized that the United States wants to be "a builder, not a destroyer" by continuing to participate in South African affairs. He characterized the position of supporters of divestment as "let's wash our hands, we'll all feel better, let's turn our backs."
Instead of pulling out, the United States will use its "leverage" to influence South Africa, he said; for example, American firms operating in South Africa could try to place more blacks in supervisory positions. Some members of the audience hissed at this statement, shouting that firms in America do not try to place blacks in management.
Change in South Africa must come from within and cannot be imposed by the United States, Jacobsen continued. The State Department is urging South Africa's government to release black leaders such as Nelson Mandela from jail so that it can negotiate with them, he said.
Johnson questioned the sincerity and wisdom of those opposing divestment. American companies have been operating in South Africa since the beginning of this century and have done little to help blacks in that time, he observed.
Arguments against divestment based on the claim that it would hurt black workers "seem always to come from whites," he said, adding that such arguments "are the only time [blacks] have ever seen such solicitude for their condition."
Motlana asserted that piecemeal efforts to help South African blacks, such as housing and scholarship funds from America, "come much too late.... Attempts at band-aid methods in 1985 will not work."
Instead, "more and more pressure" on the South African government from Western nations is needed, he continued. "There's got to be a commitment to talk with our leaders."
Businessmen are "quite uncomfortable in trying to play a political and social role," Reed said. Nevertheless, he continued, "we are not children, we are not ignorant of the fact that our presence supports the government there."
Reed described American businesses' role in South Africa as contributing to economic growth and the training of blacks for management positions, where they can form a "nucleus of leadership within the black community."
Divestment would only remove America's voice from South Africa, Reed continued. "We are a lever, a mechanism of communicating to the government the changes they need to make ... If we divested, no one would listen to us,because we would be irrelevant."
Chisholm, who had an appointment in California, commented before leaving that South African blacks are "sick of `how-far-we've-come-ism' ... People don't want human rights handed out bit by bit to them." She also related how she was made an "honorary white" when visiting South Africa with a congressional delegation so that she could stay in the same hotels as the rest of the delegation.
Audience questions panelists
About fifteen members of the audience questioned the panelists after the discussion. Several accused Jacobsen and Reed of hypocrisy and of not taking strong enough action against the injustice of apartheid.
The loudest applause of the session came in response to an audience member who said he was from South Africa. "Whatever your self-perception may be, you represent racist policies," he said to Reed and Jacobsen. He attacked Reed's expression of concern for his employees and customers, saying that ending the persecution of South African blacks was more important.
One questioner doubted the feasibility of trying to persuade South Africa to change its policies, asking, "Are we dealing with a rational actor? Racism is pathology." Reed and Jacobsen answered that the white Afrikaner society was essentially rational and capable of accommodation; Motlana said, "Mankind can change when faced with the reality of catastrophe."